A d'var Torah by Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, WebYeshiva.org.
Why No Trumpets?
In a responsum published in Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1; 169, written on the 2nd day of Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5713 (1952), R. Moshe answered the question of a rabbi who was puzzled by a comment in Ritva. Ritva was explaining why the Jews of France don’t blow hatsotserot (loosely: trumpets) when they make fast days for times of trouble, as the Torah seems to require (see Bamidbar 10; 9-10). Ritva suggested that they were of the view that that blowing had to happen with hatsotserot. The questioner wanted to know why they couldn’t simply make hatsotserot?
In addition, he pointed to a longstanding discussion among the acharonim, sparked by Magen Avraham to Orach Chaim 5706, who wondered why we don’t blow shofar on the fast days communities enact in the face of approaching times of trouble. R. Moshe’s respondent wondered why, among the various answers given, no one pointed to this Ritva, to say we don’t blow because we need hatsotserot.
R. Moshe answered both questions with a novel suggestion, that those who require hatsotserot on fast days require those that were used in the Temple itself, not just any silver trumpets.
Based on this, he argues that an odd move by Rambam becomes more understandable. In his Sefer haMitsvot, Rambam grouped into one mitzvah the obligation to blow trumpets when offering sacrifices as well as for fast days, despite the fact that he generally codifies different observances as separate mitsvot. R. Moshe suggests that once we know that both require the Temple trumpets, we can see how they are actually different but related expressions of the uses of the trumpets in the Temple. Magen Avraham was asking about blowing shofar, not trumpet.
R. Moshe’s Implication for the Theology of Hatsotserot
R. Moshe’s idea invites a bit of theological speculation. If we assume he’s right that the hatsoterot could only be used in the Temple, we ought to wonder why that might be so. Tsits Eliezer 11;16, whom we’ll see again later, links this idea to that of R. Yaacov Emden in Mor U-Ketsiah, who argued that hatsotserot needed to be blown by kohanim, priests (which he thought we couldn’t be sure of having today, see below).
If so, between the two of them, they seem to be saying that the Torah’s telling us to blow hatsotserot both when we offer sacrifices and when we face times of trouble are connected to the experience of having a functioning Temple. In such times, I suggest, we can be absolutely positive that any national troubles come from God, and that the only way to solve them is by turning directly to God, which was what the Temple was (as the Rov, zt”l, often pointed out)—a place where we stood “more” before God than anywhere else in the world.
Does that mean that, without a Temple, we have no reason to think that times of trouble come from God? One view of that answer, I believe, lies in the discussion around Magen Avraham’s question, why we don’t blow shofar on fast days, either. We’ll first look at the question in its technical halachic terms, and then see where that leaves us theologically.
Peri Megadim’s Explanation for Limiting Shofar to Israel
A first reaction to Magen Avraham that I encountered is found in Peri Megadim. He points to the verse’s speaking of a trouble “in your land,” and suggests that outside of Israel, we would not be obligated to respond this way. He raises the possibility that even in Israel it would only be when Jews have control. And he notes—as R. Moshe did not—that Sefer haChinuch offers an explanation of how the two practices Rambam related, blowing trumpets when offering a sacrifice and when times of trouble approach, are conceptually similar enough to be included together.
Sefer haChinuch suggested that in both cases, we are engaging an activity that requires increased attention. In the sacrifice, intent is crucial to ensuring that it is properly offered, and in a time of trouble, we are pleading with God to help us avert this trouble, which also requires our full attention. Peri Megadim adds that this focus is particularly required here so as not to say that the troubles befalling the Jewish people are either happenstance or the stars (or fate, or nature, or science, or whatever).
In a separate comment on Magen Avraham’s question, he suggests that that is also the idea behind fast days in general—to know that this is Providence and not happenstance or the stars. But the closer we bring them to each other, the more we might wonder whether they apply only in Israel and, perhaps, only to troubles that affect the entirety of the Jewish people. (He wonders whether every minyan of Jews would have to make its own fast days, at one extreme, or only if it affects the majority of the people at the other, with all the options in between). It is because of all these doubts, he suggests, that we do not blow shofar on fast days today.
The Theological Trouble in Peri Megadim’s Idea
Peri Megadim does not offer a coherent view of when we are supposed to see events as Divine, which makes his perspective of these halachot difficult to understand. If all events are from God (as Sefer haChinuch says is the point of blowing the trumpets, to remind us of that), shouldn’t we blow shofar in all instances? And if the answer is no, that we only blow in Israel, does that imply that only in Israel, and perhaps only for the majority of Jews, are events from God, but the rest are not?
Peri Megadim is not clear about that, but he makes one tantalizing comment. He notes that in a book of homilies that he has, he had claimed that the Talmudic phrase ein mazal le-Yisrael, which speaks of the Jewish people’s being free of the stars’ influence, only applies to the soul of the nation of Israel, since in his nomenclature, the body is called Yaakov and, as the Talmud elsewhere says, matters such as children, length of life, and wealth are matters of mazal.
In his reading, he seems to be saying, things that are purely physical might indeed be matters of “luck,” which is odd considering that the fast days he is discussing respond to physical troubles, not only spiritual ones. Also, for all that he implies that this all only really works in the Temple, we make fast days for other troubles as well, and outside Israel as well.
To explain this, I need to note two other opinions on the matter, which will then allow me to suggest a reading of these issues that puts the relevant halachot into a useful framework.
Aruch haShulchan: Two Views of Why We Don’t Blow Shofar
R. Yechiel Michel Epstein offers two suggestions for why we don’t blow shofar on fast days, both of which assume that any fast days we declare outside of Israel aren’t “real” or full fast days. His first thought is that, based on the opinion of Rashi and Tur, the proper place to blow on such days is in the extra six berachot the Talmud tells us to add to our ordinary prayers on such days (so, instead of 19 berachot that we usually call shemoneh esreh, we would be saying 25). Since in the Diaspora we don’t say those blessings—because, as the Talmud tells us, we don’t have “full” fast days outside of Israel—we also don’t blow the shofar.
Aruch haShulchan knows there is something odd in this suggestion: the obligation to blow shofar when trouble approaches is Biblical, and of these berachot clearly rabbinic, and yet Aruch haShulchan stands by his claim that once Chazal ordained the proper place for such blowing, that became its unalterable place, and without the berachot, we would not blow the shofar (this is a debatable proposition, since in the case of shofar on Rosh haShanah, e.g., the Talmud is explicit that the rabbinic institution of blessings for the blowings does not replace or uproot the need to hear shofar).
His other suggestion is that the whole idea of blowing—trumpets or shofar– would only be when the Temple is standing. He goes further than Peri Megadim, in other words, to say that the Land isn’t even really the Land unless the Temple is standing.
Theologically, again, that would seem to take us to a point where we live now in a time bereft of God’s direct Providence, waiting to return to where that is not true. Of course, to say that is to see the error, since Jewish tradition has always said—and Aruch haShulchan’s own public speeches make clear that he agreed—that God does have significant impact on our lives, even today in a time of exile.
Tsits Eliezer: Blow Shofar, Not Trumpets
By 1970, thank God, a large community of Jews was living in Israel, the country was back under Jewish rule, and the Kotel haMaaravi, the Western Wall, was being used again for prayers. Some suggested that blowing hatsotserot at the Kotel during prayers on fast days would be a good idea. Tsits Eliezer—who notes that he waded into this obviously politically charged issue only reluctantly– first notes that Magen Avraham never mentioned trumpets, only shofar, because hatsotserot were for the Temple only (as R. Moshe said) but which he justifies by saying that that was where the entirety of the Jewish people were standing (at least symbolically, if not actually).
He notes that an earlier acharon had said that even in Israel they did not blow shofar on such days, but that that was apparently changed sometime after, because he has seen the shofar blown on some occasions. Fundamentally, therefore, he says that the weight of Jewish tradition and various opinions has shied away from using hatsotserot outside the Temple, and so should we.
Conclusion: Halachic and Theological
In these sources—and there could easily be others I have missed– the conclusion seems to be that we only blow hatsotserot in the Temple, and only blow shofar in Israel, even though we have fast days for times of trouble outside of Israel. How do we make sense of that in terms of a perspective of Divine Providence and what it means to fast?
We must remember that the act of fasting in the face of worry is a statement about the origin of the feared future, that God either has brought that future or, at least, could alleviate or prevent it. Is that less or more true in Israel?
I suggest that it may or may not be, but our confidence about it changes with geography. Outside of Israel, Peri Megadim may have rightly suggested that at least some physical troubles are a matter of “luck”—whereas all spiritual ones are directly from God, in his view—but as I noted there, we fast over some physical troubles as well. Rabbinically, I suggest, we are required to suspect that troubles are God’s way of reminding us to mend our ways, and react accordingly.
The commandment to blow shofar, at least as understood by tradition, would seem to say that in Israel, particularly for those troubles that affect the majority of the nation, we are Biblically obligated to understand that they certainly come from God (as the second paragraph of Shema says as well—drought in Israel is clearly related to failure to observe mitsvot; outside of Israel, it may or may not be). That also explains why we wouldn’t blow outside Israel—the blowing is a declaration of our knowledge that this comes from God, and those of us mired in exile have no right to such confidence, even as we know that some of our troubles come from God.
And then, finally, the hatsotserot: one possibility is that in times of the Temple we can be even more sure that we are under God’s direct Providence, but Tsits Eliezer’s expression of it, that the majority of the Jewish people are standing there, suggests another possibility, that hatsotserot are a form of communication with God allowed only to the people of Israel as a single, unified entity, and that only happens in the Temple.
All of which reminds us of the levels of interaction with God we can have and can aspire towards: the more limited one for those outside of Israel, the more direct hand of God (in both beneficent and more reprimanding ways) in Israel, and the ability to talk to God most forthrightly granted only to the Jews as a people, when our priests blow trumpets for us in the Temple. May we soon see that again.